Have you ever wondered why Catholic churches are designed the way they are? In the earliest days of the Church Christianity was under nearly constant persecution. First, the Jewish officials were trying to get the apostles and disciples of Jesus Christ to stop preaching about the Resurrection. Then, in the 60’s AD, the emperor Nero Caesar started the Roman persecution which would continue, with some interruptions, until the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 AD (although the persecutions didn’t end immediately in every part of the empire).
Suddenly, after over 250 years of persecution, Christians could practice their religion openly and didn’t have to gather in people’s homes or the catacombs to celebrate Mass. The very first Churches during this time were converted from public buildings and meeting areas, but soon the Church in Rome was building the first great basilicas. These Churches took inspiration not only from Greek and Roman architecture but also from our Jewish roots.
The first holy places were on mountains. When the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, the journeyed to Mt. Sinai where they offered sacrifices to God and received the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Law. In the first book of Kings, the Prophet Elijah flees from King Ahab to Mt. Horeb where he encounters God. Also, Solomon’s Temple was build on Mt. Zion, in Jerusalem, which was considered to be a sacred mountain. That’s why Psalm 24 says, “Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord, or who shall stand in His holy place?” The mountain of the Lord is Mt. Zion, and the “holy place,” or sanctuary, is the Temple.
When Solomon built the Temple it was designed as a sort of artificial mountain. When you went up to the Temple to worship you would first ascend a flight of steps from the Outer Court to the Upper Court, which housed the bronze altar of sacrifice. Only the priests and Levites could enter the Upper Court. You would then go up another flight of steps into the Holy Place which housed the altar of incense, ten lamps stands, and a table holding bread (The Bread of the Presence) and wine. Finally, you would then ascend another flight of steps into the Holy of Holies, which was blocked off by a veil and housed the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was a symbol of Jesus, since it contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments and a jar of the Mana that the Israelites ate in the desert after the Exodus and which was a symbol of the Eucharist.
If you look at the picture of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, you can see how traditional Catholic churches are modeled after Solomon’s Temple. You would first ascend into the Church itself, where the people gather for Mass. Then, you ascend another flight of steps into the Sanctuary, or Holy Place, which has the ambo for the readings and the celebrant’s chair. Then, you ascend a final flight of steps to the tabernacle, which contains the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, just like the Ark in the Holy of Holies was a golden box containing the Mana.
You further you go into the Church, the more you are ascending the “mountain of the Lord” and the closer you are getting to Jesus. Ultimately, the sacred mountains in the Bible, Solomon’s Temple, and our Catholic Churches all point to something beyond themselves. They point us to heaven. Our goal in life should be to grow closer to God that we might one day ascend to heaven to be with Him for eternity.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.